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The Penguin Lessons: What I Learned From A Remarkable Bird    by Tom Michell order for
Penguin Lessons
by Tom Michell
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2015 (2015)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I read Tom Michell's engaging travel memoir, The Penguin Lessons: What I Learned From A Remarkable Bird on a plane to Argentina, where I did see many penguins at the end of the world, on a boat trip from Ushuaia. It's a sweet story that I enjoyed very much.

Englishman Tom Michell tells us how he journeyed (in search of uncharted territory) to Argentina in his twenties in 1975 and took a job there as an assistant master at a prestigious boys' boarding school. But this story really begins when he spent a weekend in Uruguay and went to the seaside resort of Punta del Este. There, he was horrified to find a beach full of dead Magellan penguins (which grow to between eighteen and twenty-four inches in height), covered in oil and tar from an ocean spill.

But one of them wasn't quite gone. On impulse, Tom captured it in a net and took it back to his apartment where he was bitten for his trouble. However, as he cleaned it, the penguin suddenly became cooperative. Tom tried to release it back into the ocean, but the penguin refused to go, and followed him home again. What to do? He was heading back to Argentina the next day. At a loss, he simply took the bird (now named Juan Salvador) along with him, emphasizing to the patriotic customs agent that it was truly an Argentinian bird returning home.

Back at boarding school, Juan Salvador was a huge success - with both staff and students, for whom he became a mascot. The students enthusiastically fed him and cleaned up after him, and he helped at least one of them come into his own - an ugly duckling morphed into a swan after he demonstrated his swimming talent alongside Juan Salvador. Tom persisted in (unsuccessful) attempts to return the bird to his own kind. And along the way, he learned about the rich social life of penguins.

Sadly, Juan Salvador died unexpectedly while the author was travelling - the remarkable bird had lived with him for only 'eight short months'. The Penguin Lessons would make a welcome holiday gift for anyone, especially a world traveler, who appreciates animals. It's both enchanting and informative.

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